James Reaney is a well-known and highly respected Canadian authorwhose extraordinary imagination and technical sophistication haveproduced a body of work that is original and challenging - alwaysrisk-taking, always on the cutting edge of innovation. Three times therecipient of Canada"s highest literary prize, the GovernorGeneral"s Award, Reaney has been known, however, primarily for hispoetry, plays, and literary criticism. For this reason, the presentcollection of short fiction, The Box Social and Other Stories, comes asa welcome surprise, at least to those of us who were not around in the1940s and 1950s when some of the stories were first published injournals.Our surprise grows even more intense as we read through thecollection, realizing the extent to which Reaney"s fictionanticipated the type of writing presently defined as "SouthernOntario Gothic." The imaginative landscape he invented is largely aprototype of the landscape we have come to associate with such writersas Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, and Jane Urquhart - aworld that is both displaced and realistic, symbolic and referential, inwhich strange and unpredictable things happen to ordinary characters,whose lives are deeply rooted in small-town or rural mentality. Theinhabitants of this ambiguous realm - conditioned by cultural isolation,social enclosure, and economic hardship - live out their unhappy andunfulfilled lives in a state of continual mental confusion, which oftenresults in abusive and violent behavior. These people are notnecessarily evil; only their acts are morally reprehensible, as theyfail to imagine themselves feeling the pain they so thoughtlesslyinflict on others.


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One of the most compelling and, at the same time, most disturbingthemes connecting all the stories is that of destroyed innocence.Children and youth are naturally the most frequent victims, and theirmental suffering under the forces they cannot fully comprehend ispresented by Reaney with a finely nuanced psychological accuracy. In thetitle story, "Box Social," for example, the femaleprotagonist, not quite yet an adult, is depicted silently and caringlydecorating a shoe box, until it resembles a "fairy coffin," inwhich she delivers a gruesome gift to a man who date-raped her and lefther pregnant: the body of a stillborn child. The ending of the story isall the more shocking because of the utter equipoise and"naturalness" with which the protagonist orchestrates tierrevenge - a revenge that is bravely enacted in public.In another bone-chilling story, "The Car," Reaneyanatomizes the effect of the misguided behavior of a young prostitutetoward her little boy. Mother"s frequent "customers,"arriving and leaving in their powerful automobiles, are the cause of somuch of David"s suffering that he eventually turns harsh andviolent. His little face is, as the narrator tells us, hardly big enoughto reflect all the harshness of his invisible heart. As the story"sworld of ordinary experience is erased, David assumes the shape of aphantom driver, driving a phantom car along the county roads, runningdown all those people who have shown him kindness. In a simplistic equation, he has identified himself with them: did he not himself lovehis mother, and did she not "killed" him?All of Reaney"s stories in The Box Social are superbly crafted,offer convincing characters and local atmosphere, and are, after allthese years, as fresh and as relevant as some of the best writing today.The publisher should be commended for giving them to us in the presentform and thus allowing us to readjust our image of the Canadianshort-fiction genre.Branko Gorjup York University, Toronto
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Gorjup, Branko
World Literature Today
Book Review
Sep 22, 1996
594
Will You Always Love Me? And Other Stories.
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